The Power of the Powerless is a unique political essay written in October 1978 by the Czech dissident and politician, Václav Havel. The essay was written during a time of communist oppression, which used various methods to pressure citizens into compliance. In the essay Havel exposes the inner workings of the communist regime at that time and reveals how by nature the regime turns ordinary citizens into dissidents.
The essay is of significant importance in the history of Europe as offers potential non-violent solutions and peace education whereby communities unite around a common cause. Because of its rebellious nature against the communist regime it was banned at the time, but later became the manifesto for dissent in Czechoslovakia, and various other communist regimes.
The main theme of Havel’s essay was how to deal non-violently with totalitarianism and from this came the phrase he coined “post-totalitarianism.” Havel was later quoted as saying: “I do not wish to imply by the prefix “post-” that the system is no longer totalitarian; on the contrary, I mean that it is totalitarian in a way fundamentally different from classical dictatorships… ”
The Power of the Powerless was dedicated to his mentor Jan Patocka, and coincided with the designation of Charter 77 aimed at helping those living within Czechoslovakia and “to give courage” to fellow opponents of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes.
One very notable example of Havel’s profound ability to speak to and unite the common people shows in his example of a grocer who displays a sign in his shop saying: “Workers of the world, unite!.” Because failure to show the sign could be seen as disloyalty, he shows it and the sign doesn’t show his hope for the regime, but rather a symbol of both his submission to it and humiliation by it. This theme is repeated to and returned to in order to clearly show how contradictory the communist regime is.
Eventually the essay spread and in August 1980 gained respect of the ruling class. Havel pointed out that a free society could only come about through a paradigm shift based on the individual, “human existence,” and “respect for self, for others and for the universe”. Havel eloquently explained how the ruling class was incapable of controlling all areas of an individual’s life and that trying to do so was simply blind obedience.
Havel was constantly monitored, jailed and threatened, but managed to eventually topple the communist regime with the help of common citizens and students through a bloodless revolution known as the Velvet Revolution based on The Power of the Powerless.